We saw that in 1 Cor 8:4-6, Paul affirms the fact that there is no God but one; idols are nothing. In verse 7, however, we begin to see more clearly what the problem is:
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. (1 Corinthians 8:7 ESV)
Here is the first mention of people with a “weak” conscience in chapter 8. They are Christians who were formerly associated with idols, so probably pagan Gentile converts. Astonishingly, Paul says that these people do not know that there is no God but one and that idols don’t exist (vv. 3-6), and for this reason, when they eat meat from an animal sacrificed to a pagan idol–which would have been the only source of meat in first century Corinth–they believe they’re participating in the worship of a pagan god, and their weak conscience is defiled.
The way the scenario is usually interpreted is this. These Christians with a weak conscience did, in fact, know that there is no God but one (isn’t that essential to what it means to be a Christian?), but they had been so steeped in the idolatrous mindset of their pagan past that they couldn’t eat meat without feeling guilty, like they were somehow sinning against God by also participating in idol worship. Nevertheless, they would see other Christians eating the meat (the “strong”), so even though they didn’t think it right, they would eat too and later feel guilty.
Does that sound like a weak conscience to you? In our modern terms, I think we’d say that the weak actually had a quite strong conscience. They had a strong scruple against participating in idolatry. It’s not really that their conscience was weak but that their will was too weak to prevent them from doing something they feared was wrong. Perhaps the word συνείδησις here doesn’t really mean conscience at all but something more like consciousness, as Raymond F. Collins suggests in his commentary. They’re not firmly enough grounded in the knowledge of who God is, who they are in relation to God, and whether pagan gods really exist. Their self-awareness or consciousness is weak. They eat even though they think it wrong.
I think Collins is getting warm. He’s right to affirm that the weak are pagan converts (not Jews as some commentators have thought) and that knowledge-with-oneself (συνείδησις) means something different in this context than we usually mean by conscience–not, in my view however, so different that we can reverse the polarities such that a person with a weak συνείδησις actually has what we would call a strong conscience. I think we should take Paul’s statement that “not all possess this knowledge” very literally. When we do, I believe that most of the supposed tensions and contradictions in 1 Cor 8-10 simply disappear, and we’ll see more clearly what the real problem was in Corinth. I’ll flesh that out (nyuk, nyuk) in my next post.